On Human Errancy

I noted earlier that it’s a bad argument to assert that because the Bible has a human element to it then it must also have errors because humans err.  In the foreword to Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties* Kenneth S. Kantzer notes that “only if we take the ridiculous and self-contradictory position that error is essential to all human speaking and writing, can we insist that the true humanity of Scripture necessarily carries with it false statements.”  I obviously agree.  He says a bit later that “World-famous theologian, Karl Barth, for example, declares that the Bible shouts from the housetop that it is a human book and that an essential part of its humanity is to err. Others hold that the Bible is a book God inspired in order to give us religious truth but not precise facts of science and history.”

So let’s take Barth for example (and trust me, I plan to take him for example a lot since I dropped a hundred beans on his Church Dogmatics!)—In his discussion on Scripture as the Word of God he makes a number of observations concerning the historical conditioned-ness of Scripture and the humanity of its authors (to his credit preferring to speak of the ‘capacity for errors’ rather than the ‘errors’ of the biblical authors — see CD I/2, 508), saying:

Again, we must be careful not to be betrayed into taking sides into playing off the one biblical man against the other, into pronouncing that this one or that has “erred.” From what standpoint can we make any such pronouncement? For within certain limits and therefore relatively they are all vulnerable and therefore capable of error even in respect of religion and theology. In view of the actual constitution of the Old and New Testament this is something which we cannot possible deny if we are not to take away their humanity, if we are not to be guilty of Docetism. How can they be witnesses if this is not the case? But if it is, even from this angle we come up against the stumbling-block which cannot be avoided or can be avoided only in faith. (CD I/2, 509-10)

Barth’s point here is that the mere assertion that the Bible is free from error is akin to Docetism.  The thought that the biblical writers could have written works without error is to “take away their humanity.”  He says later:

If the prophets and apostles are not real and therefore fallible men, even in their office even when they speak and write of God’s revelation, then it is not a miracle that they speak the Word of God. But if it is not a miracle, how can if be the Word of God that they speak, how can their speaking, and our hearing of their human words, possess as the Word of God the character of revelation? To the bold postulate, that if their word is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion, that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet according to the same scriptural witness being justified and sanctified by grace alone, they have still spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word. It is the fact that in the Bible we can take part in this real miracle, this miracle of the grace of God to sinners, and not the idle miracle of human words which were not really human words at all, which is the foundation of the dignity and authority of the Bible. (CD I/2, 529-30)

For Barth error is expected of humans—it’s built into their fallenness.  From my point of view it’s simply a truism that humans can and do err but this doesn’t necessitate that they will or must err.  More on this in my next post.


*I used to have a copy of this in my Pradis digital library but it was lost when my hard drive crashed so I am forced to rely on the reproduced online text (which means that I can’t cite page numbers — my apologies).


13 thoughts on “On Human Errancy

  1. But there is more to what Barth is saying than that. He qualifies what he is getting at, and provides more layering that is important to grasp; before we simply say that Barth was against inerrantism. Sure he was, in its ‘rationalistic’ form; but I think it could be argued that he supplies another kind of ‘inerrancy’ that is consonant with his ‘Christology’ and ‘Doctrine of God’s’ concursus with man.

    He, of course — He’s Barth, what do you expect ;-) — comes at this issue from a whole other slant. Just as he comes at ‘election-predistiantion’ from a different set of questions that his ‘orthodox’ counterparts were operating from.

    I’m making din din for the kids, be back.

  2. Bobby: The issue is the inerrancy of the Bible and on that Barth is surely against it. Of course he distinguishes between the Bible and the Word of God and attributes inerrancy/infallibility to the Word of God. This is why it’s a miracle that erring humans could produce an errant Bible and still mediate God’s revelation by bearing witness to the Word of God. But to take human writings, even inspired ones, and attribute inerrancy to them is akin to setting them on par with Christ, and Barth surely couldn’t stand for that. Of course I’d disagree since I don’t see inerrancy as a divine particularity (i.e., humans can and do speak/write inerrantly all the time).

    Hope the kids had a good dinner.

  3. Nick,

    They did, I need to eat still, though ;-).

    I know what Barth is getting at, but Barth says other things in his “Theology of the Reformed Confessions” that place what you said in a different light. I just don’t think it’s as simple as it is typically portrayed.

    The way that you’re conceiving of ‘inerrancy’ and human agency, and the way that Barth speaks of this, I think are coming from two different directions. He would reject the kind of dualism that your view of inerrancy and human agency stem from.

    I’ve got some other things going on at home, right now (besides me eating), I will provide a quote or two and some commentary . . . hopefully later tonight.

  4. And let me just say, that constructively from my end, I don’t think Barth needs to be taken the way he usually is; just as I don’t think that the logic of Barth’s predestination/election needs to lead to universalism as it often is by Barthians. Barth remains open-ended . . . just the way he wanted.

    The ‘miracle’ that inheres for Barth is the space posited between the ‘then’ and giving of Scripture through the Prophets and Apostles and the ‘now’ as we read it; this is what Barth is referring to as the ‘miracle’ . . . e.g. that we hear the Word of God now, as it was given then. This is the context of Barth’s ‘miracle’, again not the issue of errant words, per se (while there). I’m not saying that Barth did not believe in an errant Bible, but that errancy is proximate to the quality of the Words themselves; and the Words find their inherance in the ‘Perfect’ Word of God.

    I just think you would be surprised to read his ‘Theology of the Reformed Confessions’, and then read his CD in light of that. Albeit, the former were written as a lecture in 1925; so much earlier than the CD, but I don’t see much difference, at all, from what he says in his ‘TRC’ and his “Introduction to Evangelical Theology” on Scripture. He is much more ‘orthodox’ and nuanced than I think you are even making him sound, Nick.

  5. Bobby: I might be surprised. Who knows? But I think I’m taking Barth at his word. I have no desire to read anything into it nor to take anything from it that’s not apparently there. And in my defense, I’ve provided somewhat lengthy and contextual quotations, so I don’t think I’m making him sound any kind of way. That’s just how he sounds.

  6. Nick,

    No doubt. I think the way Barth sounds in those quotes is the way he sounds ;-). And I’m not saying you have any ill intent; and I’m also not claiming to be a Barth expert myself :-). But as I read him in his ‘TRC’, the way I usually thought about Barth (in the past); i.e. they way that you’ve been communicating his thoughts in the comments (on ‘miracle’ and such) — has been reorientated.

    He is certainly going to deny ‘inerrancy’ as typically construed, but then I think that he offers another kind of ‘inerrancy’ in re. to the function of Scripture as a unique and authoritative ‘Witness’ to the reality that it points to, by the Spirit.

    I do realize that Barth is a Modern theologian (see Bruce McCormack’s book on this), and that he is rejecting both ‘Liberal’ and its cousin ‘Fundy’ rationalist thinking; and that in that process he is trying to renounce both, but of course, ironically, I think, he still accepts the readings of the ‘higher critics’ on Scripture. So what I want to do, maybe, as I’m reading the ‘early Barth’ is draw our attention back to his thinking early on in re. to this issue — prior to the CD (where he is more mature). Maybe I’m saying that what I see in the ‘early’ Barth is much more in line with a Barth I find agreeable vs. the later Barth who may be more disagreeable with me on this front.

    I am actually going to make my response to you an actual post at my blog (either later tonight or tomorrow). Once I do that, where I will provide some of those quotes from TRC, I’ll provide a link here.

    Thanks, Nick :-).

  7. I’ve still got to eat it ;-) . . . it’s not as easy as it used to be (pre-cancer). Now I eat an “alkaline” diet, which requires a little more thought than eating dinner used to require :-(. Your dinner sounded really good . . . ah, the good ole’ days ;-).

  8. Nick,

    I just looked at what I want to quote, from Barth, in order to illustrate my point here; but it covers about a 1.5 pages (it’s one long paragraph), and, honestly I don’t feel like typing out that whole sucker ;-) . . . I will some time soon, because I think it provides some important perspective on early Barth and his views at that point (relative to bibliology and revelation). Sorry, when I do, I will come back and provide a link on this thread (let my ‘yes’ be ‘yes’, eh ;-).

    Thanks, Nick!

  9. Bobby: I hear ya. Typing out lengthy quotations is never fun. That’s why I wish I had PDF copies of all the books I own. It’s so much more convenient for blogging.

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